Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Video Farm Trip III: Planning CSA Shares

As city-based CSA member, I'm on the receiving end of a long process. Vegetables, fruit, flowers and eggs just magically show up every week at my CSA drop-site in Brooklyn, leaving me with very vague notions of the machinations behind the mesclun mix.

Williamsburg CSA

A recent trip out to my CSA source, Garden of Eve Farm, finally unveiled some of the hard work and careful planning that go into each bulb of fennel and head of cabbage I nestle into my weekly totebag of goodies.

Since they're responsible for literally hundreds of families' vegetable deliveries on a weekly basis, Chris and Eve need to simultaneously tend to innumerable everyday details of running a farm (like all those little weeds sprouting up every week) and think through the larger farm-strategy issues (like scheduling their labor and plant-growth cycles).

Every week, they need to harvest enough veggies to supply their farmstand, stock the various farmers' market stands and make sure all those CSA members are happy and well-fed.

In this video, Chris talks a little bit about how he fills the weekly CSA orders and the why the September CSA shares are, surprisingly, some of the most challenging shares of the season.

If you'd like to see the whole tasty farm tour in photo form, click here for the Garden of Eve Farm flickr set.

Miss Ginsu

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Video Farm Trip II: The Antique Roadshow

One of the most interesting things I learned while visiting Garden of Eve Farm just recently is the way that small-scale organic veggie farmers like Chris and Eve are looking to the technology of yesterday to help them streamline their work today.

Farm Implements
All-Crop Combine in the back, New Holland (a seeder, I think) up in the front.

When you really think about it, this makes sense. It wasn't until after WWII that American farmers started using industrial pesticides and fertilizers.

That brave new world made greater yields possible, and US food prices dropped. There was much rejoicing, and the decades since that time have increasingly been devoted to developing equipment for a different kind of farm altogether: the large-scale commercial farm.

Celli Equipment
I believe this one is an old mechanical spader from Celli, an Italian company

So these days, looking to the farm equipment of the 1930s, 40s and 50s really does seem like smart a way to give small family farmers access to the height of technology in those years when "organic" farming practices were the norm.

In this video, Chris talks about how he tracked down his All-Crop Combine, a machine that's remarkable for its ability to harvest everything from large seeds like soybeans to even itty-bitty flower seeds.

And I must admit, Chris' All-Crop is a pretty cool machine. If you want to learn more about it, there are groups devoted to the admiration of old combines like this one. I particularly like the antique advertising displays at this site.

One last farm video on the way tomorrow!

Miss Ginsu

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In praise of the microseason

Williamsburg CSA
Williamsburg CSA

First day CSA
First Day of my CSA (June)

Last day CSA
Last Day of my CSA (November)

See more food photos: missginsu @ flickr

Some people know the season via the calendar. These folks enjoy what I consider the seasonal four-pack: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

Those in close contact with farmers' markets and CSA groups know a veritable color wheel of microseasons within those macroseasons embraced by the rest of the population. There's ramp-morel-lettuce season followed closely by spinach-pea-strawberry season. There's the highly anticipated tomato-corn-zucchini season. Right now, it's very clearly sweet potato-cranberry-Brussels sprouts season.

Thanks to Just Food, a nonprofit org dedicated to things like food-selling opportunities for small farmers and food-buying opportunities for urbanites like me, I was able to hook up with the Williamsburg Community Supported Agriculture group this year and enjoy six months' worth of microseasons in the form of organic produce from the farmers at Garden of Eve.

CSAs exist all over the country (I used to belong to the Loring Park CSA in Minneapolis), and while I wouldn't say membership is a good decision for everyone (some people, for example, just wouldn't be satisfied with the "Iron Chef Mystery Ingredient" aspect of a CSA group's weekly variety pack, and some would have no clue about what to do with three pounds of kohlrabi or a quarter-peck of habañero peppers), I've found that supporting local produce from actual people has been ethically, sensually and culinarily satisfying for me*.

Additionally, I've learned a lot about preservation. In years past, home cooks dealt with the seasons as they arrived. If it was tomato-corn-zucchini season and the kitchen overflowed with bags and bags of red, yellow and green produce, everyone ate succotash, zucchini bread, fresh vegetable chowders, and buttery cornbread muffins.

Thanks to a constant flow of produce available in any local shop, today's cooks are far less practiced in using up a surplus. Canning, drying, fermenting and pickling are the arts of the ancients. We buy what we need. The majority of us will never be pressed into anything resembling our progenitors' annual frantic frenzy of canning, baking, stewing and jamming an entire orchard or garden over the space of a week or two during the harvest.

That said, today's CSA member (and thrify produce buyers in general) often discover a need for those techniques of antiquity.

In a month or two, (around Meyer Lemon season), it will be time to start signing up for a new CSA year. For those who plan on joining one (localharvest.org compiles national listings), here's a few tips I've discovered that might make your produce microseasons more efficient and enjoyable:

Block out some time. Right after pickup, you'll want an hour or so to care for your vegetables. Rinse the apples and pears. Wash and dry the lettuces. (I love my salad spinner.) Cut the carrots into sticks for easy snacking. Separate the celery stalks from the celery roots. Rinse and chop up the beet greens for easy sauteing.

Triage. Softer fruits and vegetables will rot first. Can't use 'em right away? Think: chutneys, sauces, jams, soups. A lot of fruit and veggies freeze better once they're already cooked (Quickly blanch and shock tomatoes to get the skins off, then toss 'em in a freezer bag.) Save any root vegetables for last.

Same technique, different vegetable. Enjoy mashed potatoes? Try the same thing with mashed celery root, carrots or parsnips. Ratatouille, soup, slaw, salad and stir-fries are all your friends. The butternut squash soup is just as good with acorn squash. Sauteed greens are yummy whether they're beet greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, chard, kale, frisee or spinach. Nearly anything can be pickled. Almost everything is tastier when it's done up with a layer of olive oil, salt, pepper and some roasting time in the oven.

* That is, apart from the getting dressed and leaving the house early on Saturday morning thing.

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Food bloggers, you are being watched.

They know what you're thinking. They record what you're typing. They're snatching up excerpts.

Though you may sometimes believe you're addressing an empty auditorium (hear that echo?), research companies are listening. And reporting.

One of the latest "well, this shouldn't be shocking" findings to cross my desk is the revelation that companies have now established themselves as experts on the "blogosphere," mining the web for blogs, newsgroups and comment threads that indicate consumer preferences. They then distill all they find into whitepapers and research to distribute to companies.

(This is a great business model, by the way... they dig through what's free for the taking, digest it, and sell the findings. It's like foraging in the woods for mushrooms, but with less physical mud beneath the fingernails.)

Case in point: the lead story on Umbria, a market intelligence company specializing in blog chatter. Umbria has determined that "Low Carb is Out, Organic is In" and has published a whitepaper to this effect.

From April through June, 2006, Umbria's agents monitored the blogosphere to understand key trends in Organic food purchasing, specifically: where, what, why and for whom.

They targeted their research for conversations about Wild Oats Markets, Whole Foods Market, Safeway and Wal-Mart and provide an "interesting cross-section of attitudes and trends related to Organic purchasing across a broad range of income levels and geographic accessibility."

I know you're busy and protective of your email address, so I'll summarize the results for you:
Those online talking about Organic foods are overwhelmingly female, a fact that's particularly interesting when you look at the total number of women (segmented into Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y age ranges) who blog and comment.

Conversation was punctuated by the April release of Michael Pollan's hot-topic book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Wal-Mart's May announcement of a big push into the Organic marketplace.

Wild Oats and Whole Foods tend to dominate discussions about Organic foods. Few bloggers seemed randy about trucking over to Wal-Mart for their Organics.

Women in the Gen Y group (15-30) appear to be the most salivation-worthy bunch from the perspective of retailers (apparently they love browsing and shopping at high-end Organic shops) and there's a "give 'em samples!" recommendation.

When it comes to Organic purchases, people are not as concerned about the environment, as they are about flavor, their health and the well-being of their kids and pets.

Also... some people think Organic foods are too expensive, snooty, hippie or just far too much ado about nothing.
It's only ten pages. You can go read it for yourself, but that's pretty much the gist of it.

Maybe I'm way off base here, but I really believe that the demise of the Organic philosophy came as soon as the US bill for the government certification of Organic foods was signed into law back in 2002. Wal-Mart just happens to be the most obvious of the nails in the Organic foods coffin.

Why? Well, it takes $400-$2,000/year and at least three years to be certified Organic by the government. That's meant to ensure quality and avoid fraud, but it's still a lot of cash for a little farm. Thereafter, there's a lot of paperwork and inspections. And if you grow organically managed lettuce but live beside to someone who chooses to spray, there's no way you can be certified.

That's why a lot of small-scale farmers choose to say they're "all natural" or "organically managed," or use "integrated pest management" (think: ladybugs).

Organic foods can be shipped from across the country or around the world, losing nutritive value as they age in transit, using up a bunch of fossil fuel in the process and robbing your local economy of an agricultural income source.

What Michael Pollan gets at is this: The absolute best way to ensure your vegetables are raised in the way in which you would grow them yourself (if only you had the time) is to know your farmers. We need to be able to look someone in the eye, have a conversation, and know that the eggs we're buying aren't from miserable, debeaked chickens stuffed into tiny laying boxes.

Unfortunately, we live in little enclaves separated from our local neighbors and craftsmen. We shop at big national stores, and we talk about those stores as if they ensure something virtuous for our food purchases. They don't. Walk around Whole Foods and do your own survey of what's local, what's Organic and what's conventionally sprayed produce flown in from Chile.

I wish I had the time and opportunity to source everything I buy. I can't. I have a day job. So I do the best I can. I get eggs, fruits and vegetables from my Community Supported Agriculture group, which is supplied by Eve, from Garden of Eve farm on Long Island. I've met her. She doesn't seem evil to me.

We get milk and yogurt from Hawthorn Valley Farm or Ronnybrook at the NYC Farmers' Markets.

J. picks up turkey sausage from DiPaolo farms and cheese and bread from Anne Saxelby at the Essex Street Market. She's passionate about cheese, she rides a cute bicycle and all her stuff is artisanally-made American foods.

That's not to say that I'm never going to savor a Hawaiian pineapple or a Florida orange. Sometimes you gotta get a nice box of Clementine oranges to stave off the scurvy. But the more you purchase locally from actual people, the more you do for your neighborhood, state and region.

Buying from local farmers means you stay in touch with the seasons (wow! the first pumpkins are showing up at the market! cool!), you feel proud about the successes of your neighbors, and you enjoy food quality and regional variety that just doesn't ship well.

Umbria can go on all they like about how hot Organic foods are. Maybe they are hot. But they're not the real answer.

The real answer is good food made by people who actually care about it and about you. And there's nobody who can slap a certification on that... except you.

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Commentary from the Culinary Catwalk

And now, from the partially-obstructed-view cheap seats, your faithful food correspondent, Miss Ginsu, launches a paper airplane dispatch on the trends in taste.

For your munching pleasure, a quick survey of the latest culinary currents:

"Organic" is like, totally over.
Now that Walmart owns Organic, that label is sooo last decade. Rumor has it that ubiquitous Stonyfield Farm has been shorting its longstanding clients on Organic yogurt in order to better supply the low-price leviathan. What's hot? Local, artisanal foods. Real food made by real people who really care. Every savvy grocery exec on the block is reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and taking notes. Expect to see the grubby, mud-caked mugs of (regionally appropriate) farmers and ranchers in a food retailer near you.

Snacks cooked in kettles.
Ain't no party like a kettle-cooked party... not only are we seeing an upsurge in crunchy sweet-and-salty treats from the food indies (via Kettle Foods, Hain (under its Terra brand), and the previously mentioned "ike & sam's" line, for example), but industry heavies such as Frito-Lay are also burnishing their kettles.

Coconut water.
Yup. Coconut water is one more in that long lineage of niche foods that see consumer consumption gains once the marketing hacks start to sing the good health song. (Think: soymilk, pomegranate juice or the Amazon acai juice currently making rounds through metro juice bars.) When I worked in kitchen prep, coconut water was considered useless runoff. Health drink? Hell... we just drank it. Now the folks on the kitchen prep crews will have to fork over every precious drop of this electrolyte-rich liquid to the health-conscious public.

Awareness of varietals and, yes... geographic origins.
When my corner bodega starts shilling Tropicana 100% Valencia Orange Juice, it's time to take a hard look at consumer awareness of produce varietals. It ain't just for food nerds anymore. I'm betting we're going to start seeing many, many more products in the standard grocery arena that would once have been considered high-end specialties. Sumatran iced coffee. Ginger Gold apple juice. American Artisanal Cheeses.

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